In September, a brain-dead woman received a kidney transplant from a genetically altered pig in a procedure that surgeons at a New York City hospital described as “successful.” However, this practice, which many in the scientific and medical community describe as “innovative,” raises serious ethical concerns.
According to Reuters, the modified pigs lack the gene that produces a sugar that triggers an immediate attack by the human immune system, which is why, according to the doctors involved in the experiment, the transplanted woman did not reject the organ.
The surgeons connected the modified pig kidney to the woman’s blood vessels and kept it outside the body for three days to monitor it.
“She had absolutely normal function,” said Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led the surgical team at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “She didn’t have this immediate rejection that we’re concerned about.”
As the agency also reported, the genetically altered pigs, called GalSafe, were developed by United Therapeutics’ Revivicor subsidiary but are only approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2020 for food for people with meat allergies.
But medical products developed from pigs still require specific FDA approval before being used in humans, Reuters said.
Until now, pigs have been the most common organ source under study because they have several advantages for xenotransplantation, including similar size between pig and human organs; and the ease with which they can be cloned and genetically modified.
Thus, gene-editing technologies and the use of human stem cells have allowed scientists to develop human organs in an animal.
According to an analysis article, entitled “The Potential and Challenges of Using Human-Pig Chimeras to Create Organs for Transplantation,” published on July 10, 2018, on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, it points out, to avoid tissue rejection, the transplanted organ must contain at least 90% human cells, which makes it necessary to generate a human organ with a human vascular system.
This raises a growing debate about the scientific ethics of research. And on the other hand, the article says there is no certainty as to how many pig chimeras are needed to ensure that a patient-specific organ suitable for transplantation is obtained.
The attempt to use animal organs for human transplantation is not new. It dates back to the 17th century when animal blood transfusions were tried, all of which failed.
In the 20th-century, scientists attempted organ transplants from baboons to humans, in which a dying baby lived 21 days with a baboon heart.
Then they moved from primates to pigs; in 1838, the first pig-to-human cornea transplant was performed.
And to this day, controversial experiments have advanced to unknown levels and against all criticism because of the serious ethical implications.
In mid-April, a group of scientists at the Salk Institute in California injected 25 pluripotent stem cells into macaque monkey embryos in a chimeric experiment that created human-monkey embryos.
Regarding this issue, in June 2020, the U.S. Senate held an intense debate in which the controversial bill called the “Endless Frontier Act” was finally passed. The bill authorized the increase of the budget to continue with the creation of human-animal hybrids.
At the time, Senator James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, who opposed the bill’s passage, referred to the obvious ethical incompatibility and the need for clear definitions.
“We shouldn’t need to clarify in law that creating animal-human hybrids or ‘chimeras’ is ethically unthinkable, but sadly the need for that very clear distinction has arrived,” said Lankford, who, along with Senators Mike Braun and Steve Daines, sought to criminalize these practices.
While Senator Braun said, “Human life is distinct and sacred, and research that creates an animal-human hybrid or transfers a human embryo into an animal womb or vice versa should be completely prohibited, and engaging in such unethical experiments should be a crime.”
How far will human science be able to go? Surely, society’s responsibility is to maintain its moral compass in addressing the ethical concerns that loom over these scientific experiments that degrade human nature.